Dodgers save MLB from a playoff calamity

LOS ANGELES — As they stood side-by-side on the third-base line Wednesday night waiting for the first notes of the national anthem, Justin Turner tried to give Trea Turner an idea of the atmosphere he was about to experience.

“You haven’t really felt Dodger Stadium until you’re here for a playoff game,” Turner told his teammate. “Wait until you see a homer and see how loud this place gets.”

Four tense, stomach-churning hours of single-elimination baseball later, the newest Dodger soaked in the sort of delirious eruption that Turner described. Towels swirled, beers flew and a venerable stadium shook with delight after an unlikely hero ended a thrilling National League wild-card game with a bolt of ninth-inning walk-off magic.

Utility man Chris Taylor, who entered the postseason mired in a two-month slump, launched a hanging slider from St. Louis Cardinals reliever Alex Reyes into the left-field bleachers. The tie-breaking two-run homer clinched a 3-1 victory that kept alive the Dodgers’ hopes of repeating as World Series champs and ensured that a 106-win season would not unravel in a single night.

“I was trying to be ready when my number was called,” Taylor said. “These are the types of moments that you dream about and that you live for. I’ll be able to look back on this for the rest of my life.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 06: Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Chris Taylor (3) celebrates as he rounds the bases after hitting a walk-off two run home run in the 9th inning of the MLB National League Wild Card game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers on October 6, 2021 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Chris Taylor (3) celebrates as he rounds the bases after hitting a walk-off two-run home run in the 9th inning of the MLB National League Wild Card game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The way Taylor described it, he didn’t think he would get a ninth-inning at-bat. Taylor expected Albert Pujols to be the one to send everyone home with one swing when the former Cardinals great pinch hit to lead off the inning.

Pujols worked the count to 3-0 and then pounced on a fast ball. His ringing line drive had the Dodgers crowd roaring but it fell harmlessly into center fielder Harrison Bader's glove for a loud, emotional out.

When pinch hitter Steven Souza Jr. also flew out, extra innings appeared to be the most likely outcome. Up next for the Dodgers was Cody Bellinger, who is hitting a career-low .165 and only started on Wednesday because of his defense in centerfield. Behind Bellinger in the lineup was Taylor, who had struggled through a lingering neck injury in September and was 8 for his last 72.

Bellinger nearly swung out of his shoes at a couple of sliders from Reyes. Then he altered his approach. He said he stopped swinging for a home run and “tried to work the count and get on base.”

The two-out walk that Bellinger drew marked his third time on base in the game. Bellinger then stole second on a pitch in the dirt, a risky move with the famously rocket-armed Yadier Molina behind the plate.

In some ways, the extra base was irrelevant. In other ways, it meant everything. Taylor said that he felt free to just swing for contact — not the fences — with Bellinger in scoring position.

“Once Beli got to second, I was just trying not to do too much and get a pitch up,” Taylor said. “He left it over the middle of the plate for me and I was able to get it up in the air.”

Taylor’s home run saved Major League Baseball from a torrent of complaints about the fairness of its single-elimination wild-card format. These high-stakes wild-card games are a bolt of energy that baseball desperately needs, but eventually a juggernaut team’s 100-win season is going to end early because of a bad bounce or blown call.

The Dodgers never expected to be in that precarious spot.

This is a team that returned the core of last year’s talented world championship roster, entered this year as the overwhelming favorite to repeat and then added a Cy Young contender and an MVP candidate in a theft of a midseason trade. They matched a franchise record for victories and outscored their opponents by a league-best 269 runs. Their 106 wins were more than any other reigning World Series champ has mustered since baseball’s divisional era began 52 years ago.

And yet because the San Francisco Giants tallied 107 victories and the Dodgers’ all-out sprint to catch them fell one win short, the World Series favorites found themselves in an elimination game against a dangerous opponent before the real playoffs even began. The Cardinals were confident and rested after reeling off a franchise-record 17 straight victories in September to clinch a playoff berth.

“I felt like we had a team that was gonna win the World Series, honestly,” starting pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “I felt like whoever won this game was going to make a deep run.”

The Dodgers can point to many reasons that they’re moving on to San Francisco and the Cardinals are heading home.

Max Scherzer fought through 4 ⅓ innings on a night when neither his pitches nor his command were sharp. Dave Roberts had the guts to pull Scherzer with two on and one out when his ace wanted to stay in the game. Roberts then deployed his deep, talented bullpen masterfully and they hung late-inning zero after zero.

But when this wild-card game is discussed years from now, it will be known for the man whose hand Roberts raised on their way off the field. This is the Chris Taylor game, the night that a star-studded team loaded with all-stars and former MVPs was saved by a utility man battling through the worst stretch of his career.

“The last couple months have been a grind for me,” Taylor said. “Obviously I haven’t been playing my best. To come through tonight felt really, really good.”

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